Since I began the research for Blue Notes in Black and White back in 2005, many of the book’s then-living subjects have passed on. Roy DeCarava, William Claxton, Bill Gottlieb, Dennis Stock, Esmond Edwards, S. Neil Fujita, Herman Leonard—the list goes on. And figures on the margins of the story, too: Gordon Parks, Dave Brubeck, Bob Weinstock, Teo Macero, Gene Lees, and more. The generation that remembers the photographic and jazz scenes in mid-century America is swiftly passing. I’m glad I got to interview several of these gentlemen for the book. One I did not interview, but should have, was Hugh Bell, who died at 85 last October in New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
In fact, I only occupied the same room with Hugh Bell once, in November 2000 at a conference called “Jazz and the Art of Photography” sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies and its Jazz Study Group. Photographers Bell, Chuck Stewart, Anthony Barboza, and Gerald Cyrus had been brought together by C. Daniel Dawson and Center director Robert O’Meally to provide first-hand insight into the subject.
Bell made the strongest impression because he was clearly the most cantankerous man in the room. I could not tell whether he was bemused or outraged by the room full of academics and their dressed-up lay questions and comments (I reserved my right to remain silent). Whenever his politically incorrect musings resulted in a collective inhaling of breath, smiles frozen on the faces of bodies squirming uneasily around him, Bell must have had the satisfaction of finding his target. Or maybe he just didn’t give a damn what we thought. Or maybe he was getting older, the effort to be congenial simply not worth the bother.
I never spoke with him, but judging by Hugh Bell’s photographs, there is a rough edge but also a deeper appreciation of the complex species we are. His friend and publisher Michael Valentine later told me that Bell was an extremely warm person with his intimate friends and family—his friendship with documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock lasted decades and younger black photographers looked up to him as a mentor and guiding spirit. Bell was a founding member of the famous Kamoinge Workshop and had a large influence on Anthony Barboza, among many others. In his own work, Hugh Bell did not take photographs to flatter. To take his jazz work as a relevant example, Bell’s opportunity to photograph Billie Holiday could perhaps have resulted in the kind of elegant burnish to her legend Gottlieb and Leonard so memorably provided. But Bell wasn’t particularly interested, it appears, in Billie Holiday as a celebrity, as an icon, or as anyone’s tragic myth or object lesson about the “jazz life.” He was interested in her as a specimen of broken humanity, the gulf between her talent and his representation its own commentary on the interesting ways we find to die.
The 1957 photograph of Holiday was, Bell tells us in an interview with Michael Valentine in the limited-edition book Hugh Bell: Between the Raindrops, his favorite among his jazz photographs. “A good photograph has to have a point of view,” he said. “So, when I took the photo, I felt that one interesting aspect of her was: How do I exhibit in the photograph that she was taking drugs? In her facial expressions, the way she handled her body, the way clothes fell off her body . . . Who is she?” No gardenias in the hair, no “Lady Day.” A ciggy, the after affects of booze or some other substance, the scars all too visible. “Sometimes she looked angry,” Bell recounted, “sometimes she looked miserable, sometimes she looked like she was laughing, all in a period of five or six minutes.” She could be all of the above in the final image Bell chose. It has a macabre, unsettling quality that seems to point the way to Holiday’s demise two years later.
Bell’s most famous jazz image, and the one reproduced in Blue Notes, is Hot Jazz (above) which toured the world with the Museum of Modern Art’s The Family of Man exhibition. But his extraordinary fashion photographs and images of Spain and the West Indies also make for rich viewing. His evocative color prints of West Indian Carnival parades, taken during the 1990s and 2000, speak to Bell’s own background. Born in St. Lucia in 1927, his long career working for Essence, Esquire, and many other outlets only ended after photography had long been accorded the status of fine art. In proud Hugh Bell’s work, we can easily see why.